By most indications, Pitt’s volleyball team this season is the best in program history. And this weekend, they took another step towards a potential national championship by reaching the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament — the first one in the history of the sport at the school.
The Panthers’ opponents this weekend were quality teams. But in the end, both were overmatched. After defeating UMBC and Penn State to reach the Sweet 16, No. 3 seed Pitt swept Kansas, 3-0, on Thursday. They then turned around and knocked off Purdue, 3-1, on Saturday, clinching the trip to Columbus. There, Pitt will face Nebraska on Thursday night in an ESPN-televised contest. Nebraska arrives on the scene after upsetting No. 2 Texas, 3-1, this weekend.
While Texas looked a bit vulnerable, struggling badly against Washington in the preceding game, the Panthers could have caught a bit of a break avoiding them. No. 10 seed Nebraska is no slouch, mind you. And they are a team that is certainly capable of beating Pitt without question. But Texas had suffered only one defeat all season long — and that was to a top ten Baylor team that they had just swept the night before. If I had the luxury of picking an opponent between the two, I’d likely take 25-7 Nebraska.
What’s my takeaway after all of this? Well, other than stating the obvious — that’s it great to see this program reach another level, I still can’t get over how complete this team is.
Pitt has had very strong teams in seasons past. We’ve talked so much before about their wealth of attacking options. I’ve been following the program closely for 6-7 years now and for the past 3-4 of those, the team has only seemed to get better. But this year, they took another step entirely and finally beat down the door to reach the Final Four.
The Panthers have continued to reload. Yes, Kayla Lund and Chinaza Ndee returning as staples was clearly the most important step in maintaining the core of this year’s team. But then add in transfer Leketor Member-Meneh, who jumps out of the gym and is, point blank, the hardest hitter I’ve ever seen for Pitt.
Look, Lund is Pitt’s best player, just because what she does beyond her hitting ability. She’s a strong defender in the back row and a great server in addition to probably being the best attacker the program has ever had. But Member-Meneh is probably the most fun player to watch that I’ve seen. It’s insane how high she gets off the floor and how hard she strikes the ball. Her emergence has also forced talented hitters Valeria Vazquez Gomez and Jordan Lockwood into the background a bit temporarily. And seeing how much those players contributed to the team last year, that gives you an idea of the impact Member-Meneh’s addition has made.
Then add in Serena Gray, the Penn State transfer that beefed up Pitt’s middle. She was touted as a defender and she’s more than capable there, as evidenced by her team-leading 131 blocks. But she’s impressed so much with her offense and serving ability as well. Coupling her with Sabrina Starks and Chiamaka Nwokolo makes for a very deep middle group.
Pitt, too, already had above average setters with Lexis Akeo and Kylee Levers, but then they added freshman Rachel Fairbanks to the mix, who ultimately became too good to keep off the court, despite her youth. And Fairbanks is going to be a player to watch, folks. Like Levers, she checks in taller (6’0”) and that makes her such a factor offensively. She’s involved so much offensively that you forget she’s a setter. Oh, and she’s also been serving extremely well. In a nutshell, she’s a do-it-all kind of player that’s only going to get better.
I don’t know. Pitt has had some very good teams in the past few years and this isn’t to diminish what they accomplished. Players like Jenna Potts, Stephanie Williams, Nika Markovic, Layne Van Buskirk, Kamalani Akeo — they really helped put this program on the map. I also don’t want to look solely at the Final Four berth and use that as a justification that it’s the most complete roster. But I am hard-pressed to identify a Pitt team under head coach Dan Fisher that has had this kind of lineup. So deep is this team that I think even their second team would be competitive in the emerging ACC. That is not hyperbole. Many of the team’s reserves could start for other programs.
So can this team win it all? Defensively, I’ve seen better teams. They have room to grow there, I think. But Pitt is at least talented to knock of Nebraska. Wisconsin, on the other side of the bracket, lost twice (each time, 3-1) to the same Purdue team that Pitt just beat. Undefeated Louisville is the real question mark. That is the team that I could see Pitt falling short against, even with a very strong performance. The Cardinals seem as if they are on another level.
The Panthers, of course, lost both matchups with Louisville. But one of those was a 3-2 affair and I would never rule them out in rematch, should it happen.
For now, though, Pitt prepares to face a very strong Nebraska team on Thursday.